Hemstead, or Hempstead, was born in Athlone, Ireland in 1918, the son of Frank
Hempstead Senior, a conscript in the British Army, who was stationed in Athlone
Barracks during the First World War. His mother was Elizabeth Nally, a local
woman from Clonbonny just outside the town. After the war, Frank senior was
demobbed; so he set off with his wife and child for London, where Elizabeth
died soon afterwards. After this sad event, young Frank was brought back, as
a babe-in-arms, to Clonbonny in the Irish Midlands; where he was brought up
by his granny and his uncles.
In his book, which was edited by Geoffrey Foy, Frank tells
of the traditions and folklore of this southeast corner of County Westmeath.
We learn of the Longworths, the local landlords, Clonmacnois and the Shannon
floods. Frank's roots are in the callows (water meadows) of "Nally Country",
where evicted tenants were forced to eke out a living on tiny holdings of cutaway
Frank was steeped in the lore of cot (boat) funerals to
Clonmacnoise, piseogs (superstitions), the meitheal (neighbours helping each
other), threshing, saving hay on the Long Island, cattle driving, Black and
Tans and The Troubles. As we turn the pages we stalk wild geese, set eel lines
and hear the cry of the banshee.
Clonbonny School was Frank's academy and he tells us that
he took to school "like a duck to water". In his tribute to his teacher Miss
Mary Ghent we sense the wide-eyed wonderment of a schoolchild in the early years
of the Free State.
In the final section of the book, Frank laments the demise
of the corncrake and yellowhammer and the destruction of the bold peasantry
that lived along the banks of the Shannon River. His book is full of colourful
Hiberno-English words and expressions, all of which have now winged their way
into cyberspace, thanks to BREENWEBZ.
To the memory of the Nallys who
took me in, my wife Elizabeth, and the people of Clonbonny.